New research shows that brain training may not be effective for ADHD.

Drugs that treat hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder are effective. They can also have unwanted side effects such as anxiety, insomnia, and weight loss. Other treatments have been used to treat ADHD.

Brain training is one such treatment. It involves “exercising the brain” to focus and pay more attention. It is believed that computer- or app-based exercises can reduce effective ADHD symptoms such as restlessness and impulsivity. Does this claim have any evidence?

To find out, my colleagues and I analyzed all the evidence available, which spans around 20 years. We reviewed 36 studies and interviewed more than 2,200 ADHD sufferers of all ages. The results of this study were recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

  • It is, however, clear that, as a stand-alone treatment, there is limited data that shows that training can reduce ADHD symptoms. It is premature to claim that brain training has a significant and reliable effect on symptoms.
  • According to the science of neuroplasticity, practicing certain skills and tasks can rewire your brain in order to improve your memory or attention. Brain training can help those with ADHD improve their symptoms, but other treatments are still recommended.
  • Recent research suggests that technology-based treatments, such as brain training programs or neurofeedback, may improve ADHD symptoms. Most experts, however, argue that further research is require. Personal Perspective: The road to obtaining a driving license for teens with ADHD can be bumpy.

Can a brain-computer interface program reduce ADHD symptoms?

  • In a 2019 study, 172 children age between 6 and 12 were test. The results showed that a brain-computer interface-based training program improved ADHD symptoms following a minimum of 24 sessions. Researchers noted that this program may be useful for “milder” cases or as an adjunct to other treatments.

Largest review to date

This is the most thorough review of this topic. This review contains only randomized controlled trials, which are the most reliable way to prove if a particular treatment is effective. Randomized controlled studies randomly assign participants to a treatment (real brain training) or a control (some other intervention).

The studies that we reviewed were “blind” to further eliminate bias. Participants must informed of the group they are in, whether it is the treatment group or the control group.

Brain training was primarily focus on working memory, and it was deliver at home, in schools, or in clinics. ADHD symptoms can worsened by poor working memory.

Our analysis showed that while working memory improved, other cognitive functions like attention and processing speeds did not. Academic skills like reading and mental math remained unchanged. These tasks are difficult for children with ADHD.

ADHD can impact a child’s performance at school. 

Although it’s great to see that working memory has improved, these results may not be applicable to everyday life.

The majority of children and adults care more about whether brain training affects the rating of symptoms. It was noticeable that the attention improved, but I didn’t find it significant. It was not enough of a difference to justify playing “therapeutic” games after school for weeks.

Few trials have examined the effects of training on the above benefits. Evidence available showed that concessions made were only temporary and decreased over time.

We found that brain training was not effective at reducing ADHD symptoms, despite positive research results from two decades ago.

We don’t prove that brain training isn’t practical. Don’t claim that brain training is ineffective for people with problems with working memory or shouldn’t be part of a multitherapy approach.

As a standalone treatment, it is clear, however, that training does not have enough evidence to support its ability to reduce ADHD symptoms. It is premature for anyone to claim that brain training significantly reduces ADHD symptoms.

Pessimistic outlook

Final note: Some studies included in this analysis were small or of questionable size. This may indicate the need for more solid evidence. We encourage higher-quality research that focuses on training methods likely to be more efficient. While we cannot rule out a future where research shows reliable positive evidence of brain training in well-executed trials, I’m not holding my breath.

This review confirms a number of findings from our 2015 study. This update is pessimistic.

Many high-quality studies have published in the last year. Our review included these. We have found that despite the additions in 2015, any improvements either diminished substantially or disappeared altogether.

As the number and quality of trials increase over time, evidence shows that training effects increase and decrease. Current brain training trends could be positive.


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